Michael Mann: The inside scoop on ‘Public Enemies’

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Hollywood is full of filmmakers who are uncompromising perfectionists, but only Michael Mann could boast that he not only has a favorite room to screen his films -- the Zanuck theater on the Fox lot -- but also a favorite row in the theater where you should park your fanny.

‘If you sit in row J at the Zanuck, you’ll find yourself in the perfect mean, the center of the bell curve for every theater in America,’ he told me the other day, camped out in his Santa Monica offices, surrounded by memorabilia from decades of his work, which includes a host of wildly compelling films and TV shows, including ‘Crime Story,’ ‘Heat,’ ‘The Insider,’ ‘Ali’ and ‘Collateral.’


‘If your film can play in row J, you’re in the heart of the zone,’ he says. ‘I know some people that want to sit farther back, but that’s the worst place to sit. If you’re too far back, the surrounds are too large.’

Even though we got together to talk about ‘Public Enemies,’ his new film that stars Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, our conversation ranged far afield, since Mann often sounds more like a Marxist history professor than a filmmaker, waxing just as eloquent about the broad historical forces that shaped Depression-era gangsters like Dillinger as how the notorious criminal managed to bust out of a high-security prison armed with a wooden pistol.

At 66, Mann still has the swagger and stamina of men half his age. Our interview was pushed back a couple of hours because the filmmaker had pulled an all-nighter, staying up until 9 a.m. overseeing digital transfer work on ‘Public Enemies,’ which has its first public showing June 23 at the Los Angeles Film Festival. (It opens nationwide July 1.) Even though he was going on scant hours of sleep, Mann looked fresh, as if staying up all night were a tonic.

‘Actually it’s exhilarating at this stage, when it all comes together,’ he explains in a voice that still had the echo of his upbringing in Chicago’s working-class Humboldt Park neighborhood. ‘The film feels like it’s containable, in your hands, almost like it was when it just an idea on three paragraphs on a piece of paper.’

Mann is part of an elite Hollywood club of veteran directors -- notably Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Ridley Scott and David Fincher -- who are both held in high critical esteem and act as magnets for A-list movie star talent, allowing them a freedom to pursue the kind of dark, difficult material largely out of favor with today’s franchise-obsessed movie studios. Mann has never enjoyed a mega hit -- of his nine features, only one, ‘Collateral,’ made more than $72 million domestically. His last film, ‘Miami Vice,’ was a box-office dud. But he has earned the right to make a wide range of absorbing films, largely thanks to the presence of such stars as Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Jaime Foxx and now Depp in the leading roles.

It’s easy to see what attracts such star power. Mann has a great ear for dialogue, a brilliant eye for action and the beguiling charm of a guy who’s comfortable hanging out with all sorts of ex-cops and hoods. His technical advisor on ‘Public Enemies’ was a convicted armed robber who once, as Mann explains with a twinkle in his eye, ‘stole a diamond as big as a grapefruit.’

But what happens when studio bosses try to control a filmmaker who is uncontrollable? Keep reading:

Being in the Michael Mann business isn’t for the faint of heart. After butting heads with Mann, any number of studio heads have sworn to never work with him again, exhausted by what they view as his budget-busting intransigence. (‘Public Enemies’ cost roughly $100 million and came in on time, in part because the production had to be finished before last summer’s presumptive SAG strike date.)

But after a few years pass, the stance often softens, since the artistry of the film remains long after memories of the clashes with Mann fade. When Mann made ‘Ali,’ he battled with Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal, who was especially infuriated by the director’s insistence on retaining a couple of obscenities in the picture, which prevented the film from earning a PG-13 rating that would have helped it reach a far broader audience.

But now all is forgiven. ‘No matter what I said at the time, I think Michael is one of our most gifted filmmakers -- we’re always trying to develop new directing projects for him,’ says Pascal. ‘You put all the disagreements behind you because you remember the great work, not the pain of the moment.’ She laughs. ‘You forget about the pain of childbirth too. I mean, whatever you go through, you still want another baby. It’s like that with Michael too.’

It’s not so hard to see parallels between Mann, who has the fierce independence of an earlier generation of Hollywood filmmakers, and Dillinger, who is portrayed in ‘Public Enemies’ as something of an anachronism, a lone wolf being squeezed out of the bank-robbing trade by the growing corporatization of crime. A key element in Mann’s conception of the film -- which he wrote with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman -- is that it wasn’t just J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI who was gunning for Dillinger, but the newly organized crime syndicates who saw freelance outlaws like Dillinger as threats to their nationwide business aspirations.

‘Dillinger was actually obsolete, but he was so damn good at what he did that he managed to survive, despite all the horrible attrition around him,’ explains Mann, who makes a point in the film of showing that virtually all of Dillinger’s cohorts were gunned down before he famously meets his end outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater. ‘There are two big evolutionary forces at work. There’s what Hoover is doing with the FBI, with information gathering and data management. And there’s organized crime, being cash rich, moving into corporate capitalism, and they don’t want these Depression outlaws around [inspiring the Feds to pass crime legislation] against moving money across interstate lines.’

Mann had always seen the 1930s as fertile territory. Back in the 1980s, he wrote a screenplay about Alvin Karpis, a Chicago bank robber who often crossed paths with Dillinger (he appears in ‘Public Enemies,’ played by Giovanni Ribisi). Nothing came of it, but Mann got interested again when he read an excerpt from Bryan Burrough’s book ‘Public Enemies’ in Vanity Fair. The filmmaker teamed up with producer Kevin Misher to put the project together. The first draft of the script was written by Bennett, a novelist Mann thought would have an interesting take on Dillinger, since when Bennett was a young IRA sympathizer he was accused of being involved with a series of bank robberies and ended up serving time in prison.

The film paints Dillinger in somber, fatalistic tones. Even though he has a soulful relationship with a Chicago hat-check girl (played in the film by Marion Cotillard), Dillinger always has a dark cloud of doom hovering over his head. He knows he won’t be around long enough to worry about tomorrow. But he’s also a populist icon. When a farmer offers him a few dollars in the middle of a bank heist, Dillinger refuses to take the cash, saying, ‘We’re not here for your money. We’re here for the bank’s money.’

To Mann, it’s easy to identify with Dillinger. ‘He was a charismatic outlaw hero who spoke to people in the depths of the Depression. He assaulted the institution that made their lives miserable -- the bank -- and he outsmarted the institution -- the government -- that couldn’t fix the problems brought about by the Depression.’

Mann uses the same word over and over to describe Dillinger -- brio. When Dillinger broke out of Indiana’s supposedly impregnable Crown Point jail, ‘he didn’t just take a car, he takes the sheriff’s new car, a V-8 Ford, and then he wrote a letter to Henry Ford, telling him that whenever he stole a car, he wanted to steal a Ford.’

Once Mann had a finished script, he went to Depp, having been a fan of his work, especially offbeat fare like ‘Libertine.’ ‘Johnny is not afraid to take chances,’ says Mann. ‘I thought this was a character he could relate to internally, to mine the deeper currents within himself, the way he would if he were ever to play a musician. I wanted to see Johnny go inside this guy, to do something emotionally open and expressive.’

So how does a filmmaker know he’s in sync with an actor when they’re preparing a film? ‘The more you do it, the more you know it when you know,’ Mann says. ‘When Russell Crowe came in for ‘The Insider,’ I thought it was going nowhere -- and suddenly we were reading a speech and after two lines -- wham! -- he was Jeffrey Wigand. It was all him.’ Mann had a similar moment of takeoff with Depp a few weeks before shooting began. ‘As he was reading, I started hearing the voice I heard in my head when I was writing the words. It was great.’

It wasn’t always great on the set. According to people who were there, Depp, accustomed to the clockwork production schedule on Gore Verbinski’s ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ films, had trouble adjusting to Mann’s more idiosyncratic schedule, which often forced Depp to wait for long hours until Mann was ready to proceed. (I got a little taste of it myself, cooling my heels in Mann’s outer office before the filmmaker came out to meet me, with his assistant explaining that I’d have to wait ‘until he finishes thinking.’)

Mann says reports that Depp sometimes left the set in frustration are untrue. ‘That’s nonsense,’ he says. ‘He may have kept me waiting, I have may kept him waiting. That’s not a big deal. For me, what goes on in a film set is sacrosanct, so I have nothing to say about what went on.’

Mann isn’t especially enamored by the tag of uncompromising perfectionist either. ‘If someone says, ‘Are you a perfectionist?’ I’d say no,’ he says. ‘There are many scenes in this film that were great that aren’t in it anymore because I don’t believe in wasting time on a meaningless detail at the risk of blowing the richness that’s down the block. I know what’s important [in a film] and what’s not.’

For Mann, it’s all about delivering the goods. not just to the studio but also the moviegoer. ‘When I set out to make a movie, part of the thrill is the level of commitment,’ he says. ‘I ain’t playing, you bet. I don’t leave things half-[done], saying, ‘Well, that scene is good enough. We can move on.’ That doesn’t happen. The ambition -- and it’s a sizable one -- is to make a movie that has a dramatic impact on people.’